Women in a desert community discussing FGM

The facts about female genital mutilation

Some cultures mark a young woman’s sexual development by cutting her genitals in a painful, often harmful process that has no health benefit

Female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female circumcision or ‘cutting’, is a ritual cutting of the genitals. In the UK and most of the Western world it constitutes child abuse, while elsewhere it may be considered a normal part of becoming a woman.

There are different forms – the World Health Organization has identified four types – which can include anything from pricking the genitals, to completely removing the clitoris and the labia (the lips surrounding the clitoris) or sewing up the vaginal opening.

Often the procedure is carried out without anaesthetic or pain relief, by people with no medical qualifications, as part of a ‘special ceremony’. The knife or other instrument used for cutting may be unsterilised. Wounds can become infected, and women can suffer problems with their periods and later pregnancies, as well as psychological distress. Some women die as a result of their injuries, and many can’t enjoy sex because of the damage caused.


Although FGM is sometimes called female circumcision, it is difficult to compare it to male circumcision as they each take many different forms. Like FGM, in many countries there are no restrictions on how male circumcision is carried out or by whom.

Despite campaigning by human rights organisations, FGM is perpetuated by social norms, cultural beliefs and political interference. Some people think FGM is a primarily Muslim practice, but in fact it is not associated with any one religion. In Egypt both Muslim and Christian families subject their daughters to FGM.

In many cultures people have practiced FGM for thousands of years and do not agree with the term ‘mutilation’ – they see FGM as a way to keep their daughters pure. Even women who have been traumatised by the experience themselves may decide they want the same for their own children.

In Sierra Leone, where 80–90 per cent of women undergo the procedure, FGM has become a political issue, with politicians sponsoring state cutting. Here FGM takes place as part of a ritual that is performed when girls are initiated into secret societies for women. Girls are only considered to have become adults after their initiation. Some men believe that if they have sex with an uncut woman, they will become impotent.

While some may feel strongly that this is a cultural tradition, there is no scientific evidence to support the beliefs that, for example, women subjected to FGM are more faithful to their partners or have better personal hygiene. Indeed, there is no scientific evidence of any health benefit to the woman.

The UK government has recently issued statements opposing FGM and describing it as a “serious criminal offence”, punishable by up to 14 years in prison. However, although it is illegal in the UK, some parents arrange for their daughters to undergo the practice abroad during the school holidays. As many as 66,000 women living in the UK may have been subjected to FGM.

Lead image:

In a desert community, close to the Somalia border, the village women meet to discuss traditional customs.

N Durrell McKenna/Wellcome Images CC BY NC ND


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Sex and Gender’ in October 2014.

Statistics and maths, Ecology and environment, History, Health, infection and disease
Sex and Gender
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development